Before the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the United States thought of itself as impervious. Politicians believed that the fall of the USSR had resolved all grand ideological debates. Commentators predicted that democratic capitalism would consume the globe in short order. Even scholars talked about the “end of history,” which exalted “Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
Any lingering devotion to the idea that the United States’ preferred forms of governmentality were ascendant came crashing to the ground on 9/11. Far from being perched near the apex of a neoliberal teleology, America found itself reeling from the sudden realization that its $700 billion per year’s worth of military might did not guarantee the nation’s eternal security.
As advertisements showcasing fun-loving families at McDonald’s were replaced with images of planes colliding with skyscrapers on our television screens, the U.S. was thrust into the realm of the uncanny, where the homogeneity of America’s national identity was suddenly destabilized. To borrow from the Bulgarian-French psychoanalytical philosopher Julia Kristeva, a “paradoxical community” began to emerge, “made up of foreigners who are reconciled with themselves to the extent that they recognize themselves as foreigners.”
Ruptures in the U.S.’s security imaginary should have prompted mass existential reflection about the exploitative foundations of America’s obsession with empire. Sadly and at great cost (both in lives and public funding), the nation instead doubled down on its imperial fantasy, with former President George W. Bush launching two wars in the Middle East while urging citizens to “get down to Disney World in Florida,” and “take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”
“Don’t let the terrorists scare you away from Walmart,” we were told. Shopping uplifts the private marketplace, that most sacrosanct of American institutions and the architectural symbol of which had just violently collapsed. At no time was the connection between the pursuit of global economic domination and the turn-of-the-century American character called into question.
At no point were the consequences of organizing a society around the worldwide promotion of late stage capitalism reexamined. Though our country’s geopolitical grandiosity lay shattered at our feet, we never had a prolonged discussion about the need to forge new forms of solidarity, allyship, and community that are essential to empowering subjugated voices and advancing international unity.
Money was all that mattered. That was the American way.
Two decades later, the U.S.’s crisis response is still driven by greed. Approximately 41 million Americans have contracted COVID-19 since the coronavirus touched our shores, resulting in nearly 660,000 deaths. Entire swaths of the country, particularly in the southern states, are battling unprecedented case loads and hospitalization rates. Yesterday’s nationwide case count equaled 176,427 new infections, a number that is roughly 44 times higher than the total number of cases experienced by New Zealand during the entire pandemic.
Are we following the Kiwi policies of investing in a green economy, funding an arts recovery, and shuttering businesses to protect public health? No. Here, senators who are disproportionately empowered by Congress’s broken policymaking rules, like stalwart fossil fuel defender Sen. Joe Manchin, are undermining efforts to assist financially vulnerable families and address the climate crisis, no matter what the cost may be to people and the planet.
Pediatric cases are currently surging in the U.S., accounting for 25 percent of new infections. Yet, the possibility of schools returning to distance learning is slim because education systems are viewed as the country’s primary form of childcare for American workers. Even the Biden administration has called for in-person learning to continue, despite evidence that some large school districts, such as Hawai’i’s, are willfully violating federal safety guidelines.
We are literally sacrificing our children to boost corporate profits.
After 9/11, you would think that Americans would be more leery of human sacrifice. Many of us are, but too few of our leaders are listening. The situation is eerily similar to the days after the assault at Ground Zero, when the voices of those crying out for peace were muffled by those clamoring for vengeance. Hundreds of thousands of souls died in the combat that defined the aftermath of the fall of the Twin Towers, in wars that U.S. leaders are only today bringing to a close.
We still have time to rescue a commitment to communal empathy from our collective trauma. We still have a chance to thwart a worsening tragedy by putting human lives before dollar signs. If we steer our ship of state back toward the public interest, then in twenty years we will do more than memorialize a senseless loss of life. We will remember this era as a time when we pursued a politics of compassion like our lives depended on it.
Whether we have learned it yet or not, our lives, in fact, do.
On January 6, 2021, rioters roiled by Donald Trump’s loss in the 2020 U.S Presidential election stormed the nation’s Capitol, tearing through barricades and building security, and sending death chants echoing through the hallowed halls of Congress. More than 140 people were injured in the assault. Five people died, including police officer Brian Sicknick, who suffered two strokes after engaging with protestors.
Shortly thereafter, barriers were erected around my workplace, the Hawai’i State Capitol. I serve as the chief of staff for Rep. Jeanné Kapela, one of the islands’ most progressive legislators. We are magnets for regressive vitriol. As we witnessed in January, people whose social and economic privilege is predicated on stifling dissent will police society’s margins with a combative and, at times, murderous aggression.
Such outrage was not confined to Washington, D.C. This winter, the Federal Bureau of Investigation warned all 50 states that armed demonstrations were being planned at their seats of government. Thankfully, in the Aloha State, incidents of violence were few and far between. Several protesters unsuccessfully attempted to breach the temporary barricades that encircled Hawai’i’s legislative center. While they were easily blocked from entering, they could not be prevented from exercising their First Amendment right to shout obscenities at legislative staff members and, on at least one occasion, gestured menacingly toward a Capitol employee in a manner that may have involved a concealed weapon.
It has become cliché to denounce these violent outbursts as the actions of individuals fighting for a racialized past. There is undoubtedly a lot of truth to that sentiment. Largely (though by no means entirely) uneducated Caucasian men and women propelled Trump to the presidency because of disenchantment with the seemingly inevitable downfall of their perceived superiority. While people of color have fiercely and fearlessly demonstrated the structural inequality that still stymies America’s long march toward freedom, members of the alt-right and their sympathizers have simultaneously advanced a political agenda based on economic and ethnic nationalism, attempting to reclaim a pre-World War II era that silenced minorities’ dissent by any means necessary.
Yet, social resentment isn’t just a matter of the past. Construing it as merely atavistic misunderstands its relation to and acceleration by political modernity. The mob that celebrated the new year by crooning for the deaths of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Vice President Mike Pence fetishized an executive administration that sowed racial, sexual, and class division within the complex forces of globalization to amplify its power. Hate crimes spiked under Trump’s rule because extremist groups felt empowered by his rhetoric and shielded by his actions, which cast immigrants and ethnic minorities as adversaries to provincial white dominion.
Like its religious counterpart, however, political dominionism is as much a product of modernity as a reaction to it. Adherents of dominion theology–who overlap heavily with supporters of political dominionism–seek to institute a government founded on Christian fundamentalism, whereby all public structures and discourses are redirected toward the consecration of Biblical law. They don’t just want to recapture the time of Moses. Rather, Christian dominionists believe that restructuring government in the image of Jesus Christ is essential to preventing contemporary society from slipping further into postmodern sin.
In a similar way, political dominionists are not simply premodern. While they promote a disingenuous and prejudicial version of history to prop up their power grabs, those gestures are made within the field of current class conflicts. As the Economic Policy Institute has stated, decades of accelerating wealth inequality in the U.S. have left working families unable to meet their basic needs. Even during the pandemic, the nation’s top earners added literal trillions to their bank accounts, while lower-income employees lost their jobs and, as eviction moratoriums expired, their homes.
Anti-democratic hardliners, like Trump, exploit the social alienation caused by this widening economic chasm to concoct a populist narrative filled with imaginary threats, often backed by evangelical sermons that sanctify resentment as a righteous expression of God’s will. Instead of being loved by their neighbors, immigrants seeking asylum from human rights violations are cast as job stealers and drug kingpins. Black and indigenous people calling for police reform are decried as criminals intent on destabilizing communal order. LGBTQ+ individuals demanding anti-discrimination protections are denounced as child predators. Frustrated by politicians who prioritize stock market wealth over their constituents’ well-being, many working class citizens have fallen into desperation, seeking material solutions that never arrive and succumbing to the rhetorical gimmicks of opportunistic fear-mongers.
Virulent white nationalism and Christian puritanism have been intertwined with U.S. history since the country’s founding, as numerous historians have reminded us. No matter how one feels about the New York Times’s 1619 Project, it is an incontrovertible fact that the roots of American democracy and economic hegemony are planted in capital extraction that has disproportionately harmed non-white and non-male people, from blacks held in bondage under chattel slavery to native people dispossessed of their ancestral lands to women whose unpaid care work facilitates male fortunes. As American capitalism has evolved, its discriminatory underpinnings have adapted with it.
Corporations haven’t embraced a post-pandemic ethos of redistribution, despite the massive social investments that have been required to keep the nation’s economy afloat and its people alive. With the Delta variant spreading more quickly than ever before, plutocrats have resisted calls for reinstating restrictions to prevent future infections. Never have the fatal consequences of continuing to engage in “business as usual” been more apparent, but CEOs have dismissed warnings about rushing to reopen as big government alarmism. In Hawai’i, nearly 25 percent of new COVID cases involve children. The state’s education department does not have a metric to guide school safety decision-making, however, because campus closures would force parents to find alternative forms of childcare and, possibly, stay home from work. Don’t expect the Chamber of Commerce to sponsor legislation to provide universal childcare to female employees, though, since that would require the creation of new public funding streams that might eat away ever so slightly at corporate bottom lines.
Instead of participating in deliberations about economic justice, the private sector is spending millions of dollars to co-opt movements that are demanding structural reform. Diversity training has become an $8 billion industry that allows business leaders to perform an anti-racist skit on the world stage, while those same executives flood the campaign war chests of political candidates who oppose the policies and regulations that would genuinely uplift BIPOC people, like a living wage, universal healthcare, or rent control. According to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report, the Paris Accord’s goal of limiting global temperature rise to no more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels is in serious danger because of our collective failure to decarbonize our economy. Don’t tell that to Big Oil, however, which is doing all it can to keep fossil fuels flowing through “sustainable” pipelines that are powered by environmentally racist carbon capture technologies. Hastening our planet’s transition to a clean economy is derided by these companies as quixotically anti-capitalist. For Wall Street speculators, if a solution isn’t market-based, then it has no value. They only worry about one shade of green.
As the sea level rises, working families are getting crushed in waves of debt. Nevertheless, pointing out the ideological bankruptcy of corporatism does nothing to remove the material barriers that leave people on the cusp of eviction. When orange prices are soaring faster than cost of living increases, we shouldn’t scoff at low-wage employees who scarf down Egg McMuffins for breakfast. They’re only trying to survive in a hyper-competitive, increasingly automated work environment that’s leaving them behind. If public officials don’t provide the safety net that workers need to modulate an undulating economy, then the social distortions connected to financial deprivation will only worsen, leaving our democracy susceptible to strongman-sponsored political violence.
Friedrich Nietsche, perhaps the foremost philosopher of ressentiment, theorized that resentment is an egoistic reassignment of perceived inferiority to an external scapegoat, whereby the ego creates the illusion of an enemy that can be blamed for one’s failures and labeled “evil.” The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard expanded upon this framing to argue that resentment metastasizes in a “reflective, passionless age,” during which the populace replaces creativity with conformity to maintain a status quo that enables their own sense of superiority.
In both cases, resentment is a reactionary position undertaken to rationalize one’s own socioeconomic debasement by dehumanizing the Other, so that encounters with people who are different than oneself–racially, sexually, culturally, or in any other manner that can be socially constructed as a opposing signifier–are always already hostile. Morality, itself, becomes less about articulating a coherent set of values than a process of devaluating strangers as uncivilized barbarians, a fiction that is easy to brand as fact in a society that forces its citizens to spar like gladiators in an irrational marketplace for a share of the abundance that they see advertised daily on their virtual streams.
To evade further social decay, we should redirect our democracy toward care, not competition. We should cultivate an economy that strengthens people, not profit. Hard as it may be, we should respond to anger with empathy. And we should realize that the only way to “bring us closer together,” as the election phrase goes, is to center the struggle to overcome inequality in every political decision we make.
For more than a year, global society has battled a planetary pandemic. Even for those of us who have been spared infection by COVID-19, the virus’s social symptoms have been a persistent challenge. My home of Hawai’i has been besieged by an economic downturn that yielded the U.S.’s highest unemployment rate and is threatening to leave thousands of families houseless when the state’s eviction moratorium expires.
Crisis calls to Imua Alliance, the nonprofit sex trafficking victim service provider for which I serve as executive director, spiked by 330 percent last year, as survivors of sexual servitude were forced to shelter in place with their abusers. An analysis published in Journal of Radiology last August, moreover, found that the proportion of women who endured physical abuse was 80 percent higher during the pandemic than in the three earlier years put together. Researchers also concluded that the injuries inflicted upon victims were significantly more severe than in prior years. The sun-streaked beaches of paradise have a dark side.
From communal health to economic insecurity to gender violence, the coronavirus has revealed our collective inability to grapple with the most pressing issues pestering our present moment. Even our efforts to end the pandemic are sullied by structural inequality. Vaccination access varies widely in the international community, with low- and middle-income countries struggling to finance vaccine purchases, while wealthier governments dither over donating extra doses. World leaders recently announced a plan to share one billion vaccine doses to impoverished areas, but we have to ask: why did it take this long?
COVID-19 may be the most dramatic “teachable moment” in recent memory, from which we can learn that business as usual is the business of destruction. Unfortunately, many governments are doubling down on the status quo. In Hawai’i, for example, state leaders have rushed to reopen the visitor industry, repeatedly undermining the safety blueprint they designed to guide the islands’ recovery strategy. Over 629,000 visitors arrived in Hawai’i in May, giving a boost to the state’s tax collections. Yet, policymakers failed to advance measures to diversify the local economy during this year’s legislative session, despite residents’ resounding discontentment with being financially dependent on an industry that ravages the climate and is prone to collapse during times of crisis.
While coronavirus may have been a once-in-a-hundred years event, the inept response to the pandemic undertaken in many “wealthy” nations is a direct result of institutional neglect. Instead of taxing corporate profits to pay for universal healthcare, the United States has allowed income inequality to grow to historic levels, with billionaires banking over $1.2 trillion dollars since March of last year. Rather than include gender analysis in the policies that it promotes in response to infectious disease outbreaks, the World Health Organization has advanced healthcare frameworks and monetary models that prioritize pharmaceutical companies’ bottom lines over the well-being of the developing world.
One of the most salient examples of pandemic-related inertia is the global reaction to COVID-19’s impact on the climate crisis. Government lockdown policies reduced carbon emissions by as much as 7 percent during 2020, according to the Global Carbon Project. The clear skies were temporary, however, as the industrial world quickly returned to its polluting ways once the lockdowns ended and economic engines began roaring once more, with fossil fuels flowing through their gas tanks. Piers Forster, Director of the Priestley International Centre for Climate at the University of Leeds, recently penned an article for the BBC suggesting that the coronavirus’s mass experiment in decarbonization produced environmental impacts that were not only impermanent, but negligible. Forster wrote, “Looking further ahead to 2030, simple climate models have estimated that global temperatures will only be around 0.01C lower as a result of COVID-19 than if countries followed the emissions pledges they already had in place at the height of the pandemic.”
If left unchecked, climate change could generate economic calamities and casualty counts that vastly exceed the devastation of COVID-19. We proved during the pandemic that we can adopt a more sustainable way of being, though, if we’re forced to do so. We shouldn’t need shelter-in-place orders to induce environmental consciousness. We should be able to summon the sanity necessary to advance comprehensive plans to protect the planet. As with the inaccessibility of public health systems in indigent and remote areas, inadequacy of broadband networks to support the rush to teleworking, and impotent fiscal safety net afforded to dormant workforces, the fissures cleaved in the social contracts that govern our lives point toward one end: neoliberalism is a plague that threatens our survival.
Capital markets are subsuming our existence under their control. If politics is the repartitioning of what is deemed sensible, intelligible, and legitimate within a social order, however, then the biggest danger we face in the era of constant calamity may be the accelerating depoliticization of the public sphere. Private profiteers are adept at turning democratic struggles into commodifiable conflicts, selling us an illusion of social cohesion for the cost of our political power. For the sake of our future, it is time to take our power back.